I’m a Coastal Grandmother. Stop Appropriating Our Culture.

Young people on TikTok are trying to hijack my lifestyle.

The original coastal grandmother on the beach
The Atlantic; Alamy

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TikTok and I have been getting to know each other. For my part, I’ve been trying to learn how to save funny videos. For its part, it’s been sucking the soul out of my body and feeding it back to me bit by bit so I don’t catch on too quickly. But last week, it stopped playing games. It decided to tell me exactly who I am, and I am shook.

I had thought TikTok was just a fun delivery system for rapid-fire recipes, extremely large litters of puppies, and “You go, girl!” inspo from recent divorcées. I’d made a meat loaf that required me to send away for a bottle of Chick-fil-A sauce—it was pretty good—and also a “one pot” dinner that involved both chicken and cream cheese, like I’d lost my goddamn mind. I’d followed a couple of sex workers, some public defenders, a lawyer who taught me how to win every personal argument (apparently, it has something to do with listening, so I haven’t tried it yet), and many new moms showing off their babies.

But, as I’m the last person to discover, TikTok is not just a fun delivery system of endless distractions. It’s a “Get behind me, Satan!” bit of trickery. It doesn’t just know about your meat loaves and your sex workers. Every time you log on, you’re shedding blood cells and hair fibers. Attempts to assert yourself against the machine—scrolling past some videos, rewatching others, leaving a bread-crumb trail of your own humanity in the form of likes and little DMs—only solidify TikTok’s power as your master. It shucks off the husk of “personality” encoded in these decisions, and adds what’s left to an ever-more-thorough profile of your DNA.

It was through these dark arts that I learned I am a “coastal grandmother.”

No, I’m not a grandmother—I’m a coastal grandmother. If you know, you know. If you don’t—I’ll help you.

It was late afternoon, and I was sitting on the couch scrolling and probably wondering if there was anything in my refrigerator I could squirt some Chick-fil-A sauce on and call dinner, when: boom.

An older woman—@thestyleequation—was sitting at a desk, talking in an authoritative way, half playfully, half seriously.

“Trend alert. Why am I lounging around, ignoring my to-do list? I’m embracing the new coastal-grandmother trend. Coastal grandmother is an aspirational lifestyle involving wearing white clothing, button-down blouses, gardening, and cooking your favorite Barefoot Contessa recipes. You’re going to need to rewatch Something’s Gotta Give with Diane Keaton and follow this gal.” Across the screen, the handle @LexNicoleta appeared in a white font.

Oprah speaks of the “aha moment,” Joyce of the epiphany. For me it was more “Holy shit.” I texted the link to my sister and then burned rubber over to Lex Nicoleta, who appeared before me, a young, upbeat blond woman, the very soul of influencer relatability.

“What is coastal grandmother, you ask? It’s a term that I coined for this aesthetic.” Here she points up at pictures of Keaton in a white ribbed turtleneck, having a great time on the beach in Something’s Gotta Give. “If you love Nancy Meyers movies, coastal vibes, recipes and cooking, Ina Garten, cozy interiors, and more, there’s a good chance you might be a coastal grandmother. And no—you don’t have to be a grandmother to be a coastal grandmother. It’s for anyone and everyone. I even made this playlist on Spotify so you can have the coastal-gran ambience with you everywhere you go. If any of this sounds like you, follow along and we’ll gran together.”

It was a classic bit of online radicalization: @thestyleequation had lured me in, with her knowing smile and corniness (I haven’t heard anyone referred to as “this gal” in 25 years), and then Lex Nicoleta had redpilled me.

In the way of these things, once I knew about Coastal Grandmother, she was everywhere I looked. Since Lex Nicoleta’s post on the topic, in late March, the phenomenon has been all over lifestyle television (the Today show, Good Morning America), the fashion press (Vogue, Elle, Glamour), and the newspapers (The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times). Anne Hathaway declared coastal grandmother the trend she’s been waiting for all her life; Diane Keaton and Nancy Meyers themselves have paid tribute.

Trends emerge in one of two ways. The first is via the famous contagion model, in which a style or behavior from a particular subculture spreads so widely, it is eventually unmoored completely from its original significance. As soon as something is available at a suburban mall—tramp stamps, baggy clothes, Eve Babitz collections—it’s just the echo of a forgotten noise. The other way a trend takes off is when someone canny enough and attuned enough to the culture notices something that is already there—something that has existed a long time—and names it.

Because Lex Nicoleta is clearly some kind of genius, here is a trend that does both things at once: It introduces a subculture to potential new adherents (young people), and it affirms that culture to the other people (the old people) who are already living it.

The olds, now that we have been given this new term by which to identify ourselves and one another, don’t really need to “follow along” with Lex. We already have the Barefoot Contessa, the ginger jars, the blue-and-white porcelain, the straw bucket hats. We already know how to get enough Chardonnay on board that we can squint at the exhaust coming out of the dryer vent and imagine it’s evening mist rising off the crashing waves at South Hampton.

But young people?  

Menopause is the ultimate “me time,” and you have to earn it. By the time you make the big turn to the Jane Goodall–influenced wardrobe, beekeeper’s hat, and 200-pound Le Creuset Dutch oven, it’s because you’ve had your fill of other, more obvious pleasures. When I was 27, I didn’t want to take very slow walks covered head to toe in gauzy white linen. I had a life going on! When I was 27, I ate at Fatburger, slept off hangovers at the beach, and tried to keep body and soul far enough apart that I could scrape myself into my car on Monday mornings and go teach Great Expectations to preppies in the San Fernando Valley. What the hell is going on?

Nancy Meyers has made mincemeat of any other filmmaker’s attempt to turn real-estate porn into movies. “The kitchen from Something’s Gotta Give” is a phrase that young and old alike can invest with the deepest longing. The dining-room walls are painted in shades of Farrow & Ball so pale, they might not be visible on the UV spectrum (Enamel Basin? Wince?), and then drenched in candlelight. The chairs are covered in what looks like white linen until you walk all the way up to the television screen and see that this white linen is covered in tracery the color of the palest moss, tracery that ­might assume the condition of toile, but so far nobody’s been able to drill down deeply enough into the pixels to know for sure.

Of course, anyone would want these things. But the soul of her movies—the two principle texts being Something’s Gotta Give (Diane Keaton/the Hamptons) and It’s Complicated (Meryl Streep/Montecito)—is that these are older women who are free to do what they want, and who don’t have to answer to men at all. Meyers loads up the movies with plots that must be laboriously proven out, the point of them being that women over 50 are just as sexually desirable as dishy women in their 20s (if that were true, you wouldn’t have to make a movie about it). The horrible plots require these two goddesses of American cinema to spend precious pasta-making time performing sexual attraction to, respectively, late-stage Jack Nicholson and pre-Hilaria Alec Baldwin. But that doesn’t detract from the movies’ real point, which is that after menopause, if you can land on your feet, you are still filled with desire, more desire than ever. It’s just for different things. The plot says, “Don’t worry! You’re still getting laid!” The story says, “Take a look at this brushed-nickel hardware!”

No longer hounded around the clock for sex, breast milk, foil-wrapped lasagnas, and emotional labor of all kinds, the post-menopausal coastal grandmother (PMCG) is free to address these new desires. Sleeping off tequila shots on the beach is a bad idea for so many reasons. (The sun exposure! The empty calories!) But the desire to wrap yourself in a cashmere throw and pull on some very soft pants is carnal. Where are you going? To the farmers’ market, of course! Or maybe you’re off to the gynecologist all your friends go to, the one who knows you want estradiol at maximum dosage.

At this age, finding the perfect spot in which to drink your morning coffee becomes a matter of life and death—how many more mornings do you have, anyway? What a sin to waste one drinking coffee while staring blankly at the kitchen wall. And we want to have fun. We want to open a few bottles of pinot noir, put out some good brie, and invite three or four of our favorite Rita Wilsons over so that we can scream with laughter over some long-secreted truth. Sex? Yes, but by appointment only.

There have been valiant attempts to divert the young from this dying of the light. @carlyvandyke (youngish; long hair whipped by sea breezes or a rotating fan) is trying to promote “coastal chic” as an alternative to coastal grandmother. “Essentially, I think it comes down to one very important thing. Coastal chic is the ‘cool girl’ version of coastal grandmother … Coastal-chic girls are kind of the girls that are drinking the white wine. And the cocktails. While the coastal grandmothers are drinking their tea, you know what I mean?”

No! As Lex Nicoleta has repeatedly made clear, Coastal Grandmother drinks so much white wine, she’s a borderline alcoholic. (“Coastal grandmother has nothing to prove,” @monaehendrickson2 commented. “Coastal chic is still trying to impress their 5 Instagram followers.”)

There have also been attempts to brand the concept of “coastal granddaughter,” but—here’s the strangest part—there appear to be many more young women who want to be grandmother than granddaughter.

Martha Stewart claims she has no affinity for the coastal-grandmother life: “I could never be in those [Meyers] movies,” she told InStyle magazine. “I work every day! I’m not retired yet, maybe when I retire in 20 years … maybe.” Perhaps she has forgotten that Diane Keaton’s character is “the most successful female playwright since Lillian Hellman,” while Meryl Streep’s owns the kind of charmante little bakery that somehow makes a mint on chocolate croissants and whimsy. No one is more C.G. than Martha Stewart. For years she owned a pleasure dome on the most desirable street in East Hampton.

What Martha probably doesn’t like is that here’s a trend that cuts very close to her own invention. She and Lex Nicoleta both entered the culture at a moment of extreme anxiety about a woman’s relationship to the home. Martha came along in the ’80s, when women were fleetingly “having it all.” She said, Sure, have a job! But devote every non-job second to extremely laborious home-beautification projects. Today Nicoleta is speaking to the coastal grandmother aspirants who dream of being primarily concerned with homemaking, spending time with husbands, and freezing flowers into ice cubes or, better yet, into giant ice molds to hold a chilling bottle of wine. But someone needs to tell them that they didn’t just miss the revolution; they missed the 21st century. There’s no glory in wanting to be very, very comfortable all the time. Unless you’re also … pretty old.

The PMCG is powerful not because she’s been a corporate wife for 40 years. She’s powerful because she was her own corporate wife for 40 years. When she decides to paint her antique wicker chaise in the exact same shade as her bedroom walls (Pride of the Regiment Eggshell), she’s empowered as hell. She’s earned it. She fought the patriarchy and then smothered it in a cashmere pashmina; she bought the big screen and has total command of the remote. She knows that things can always be a little more delicious, more relaxing, more high-end. She’s not stomping around in a nap dress; she’s napping.

Try all of this too young, and you miss the point. Put down that H&M bag (a PMCG says “Invest in a few good pieces” before she turns off the alarm each morning) and do something. Rewrite The Little Foxes, get a divorce, build a composting business and spend your days elbow-deep in other peoples’ coffee grinds.

Coastal grandmother isn’t the thing! Coastal grandmother is the reward for the thing.